Wandering Home: A Long Walk Across America’s Most Hopeful Landscape: Vermont’s Champlain Valley and New York’s Adirondacks
The subtitles of the books by Bill McKibben and Nathaniel Tripp proclaim their chief concerns: McKibben celebrates a landscape running from Vermont to upstate New York—he is hopeful about efforts being made to preserve it—while Tripp records his struggle to protect the upper Connecticut River valley from abuse by electric companies and property developers. Both writers came from cities and chose to live in the country and to write about their experience there. They both deplore what McKibben calls the irresponsible “hyperindividualism of our time”; they are sympathetic to environmental causes but acutely aware of the dogmatic naiveté the converts to the environmentalism of the 1960s sometimes exhibited.
Both also recognize that even the best-considered reform efforts often fail. If that seems bound to happen, some people will share the despairing visions of environmental ruin Tripp describes at the end of his book. Others will try to find better reforms, as McKibben does with a stubborn cheerfulness, despite all the ravages to the environment by human beings that he observes. Hard evidence may be less significant than inborn temperament in determining which attitude people take. Both books are eloquent in describing the different kinds of damage being done to the landscape and both are perceptive about what can be done about it. Short, elegant, and engagingly personal, they both deserve to be read in an afternoon and thought about long afterward.
McKibben’s walk began on Robert Frost’s land in the Green Mountains of Vermont, where he now lives most of the year; it ended at the house he used to live in, some two hundred miles away, in New York’s Adirondack wilderness, where he still owns 130 acres of woodland. He climbed to a lookout peak in the Green Mountains and walked through the farmland of the Lake Champlain valley; he crossed the lake in a rowboat and made his way through New York’s mountainous Adirondack wilderness.
From the start, McKibben was convinced that the land he was about to traverse was
one of the world’s few great regions, a place more complete, and more full of future promise, than any other in the American atlas.
This region (Adimont? The Verandacks?) includes the fertile farms and small woodlots…in the Champlain Valley, where a new generation of settlers is trying to figure out new ways to responsibly inhabit the land…. And across the lake it is made whole by the matchless eastern wilderness of the Adirondacks, the largest park in the lower forty-eight, 6 million acres, bigger than Glacier, Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and Yo-semite combined. At the risk of hyperbole and chauvinism, let me state it plainly: in my experience, the world contains no finer blend of soil and rock and water and forest…. And no place where the essential human skills—cooperation, husbandry, restraint—offer more possibility for competent and graceful inhabitation, for working out the answers to the questions that the planet is posing in this age of ecological pinch and social fray.
My walk will carry me across this range of mountains—this range of possibilities.
McKibben emphasizes the contrast between the domesticated character of Vermont’s landscape and “the unruliness of the rest of America” that begins in New York:
The Adirondacks are higher, colder, and wilder—people have lived here for fewer centuries in fewer numbers, and have never been able to make farming work for long. And so, over time, huge chunks have been left to rewild themselves, till in places it approaches the primeval.
Yet he claims that
they have so much to teach each other, these two sides: New Englanders have learned a great deal, mostly through trial and error, about how to successfully inhabit a land, experiments that continue to this day; and Adirondackers, often against their will, have learned as much about how to leave land alone.
Seeking out “countercultural ideas about what might be, and some poignant reminders about how we once lived,” McKibben dropped in on old friends and made some new acquaintances, several of whom were engaged in conservation. He introduces us to them with sympathetic deftness, however implausible their hopes and plans may seem to less optimistic observers. He is most at home with fellow spirits who, like himself, abandoned city apartments to seek a better life. He meets, for example, a professor at Middlebury College in Vermont who tends a grove of sugar maple trees, and students at that same college who set up an organic garden on school property and made their lunches from its produce and other local products throughout the school year. In upper New York State, he journeyed for a while with John Davis, a fellow spirit and writer, who rowed him across Lake Champlain and told McKibben, “You can’t completely consign the valleys to human dominance. That’s the western model—wilderness in the rocks and ice, people everywhere else.” Instead, Davis is trying to construct a corridor of wilderness between the lakeshore and the high peaks of the Adirondacks to assure living space at every elevation for other forms of life, among them bears, beavers, moose, and herons.
McKibben also spends time with people who have been born and brought up in the country. A state forester wants to make ecologically sustainable tree farming a profitable business, even though costs are greater than the standard, destructive “clear-cutting” method. He finds dairy farmers who “get twice as much per hundredweight” when they sell their “organically produced milk.” (McKibben doesn’t say exactly what this means, but according to Department of Agriculture standards it is milk produced largely without synthetic feed by animals that are not given hormones to promote growth and are allowed out to pasture.) McKibben sums up his impressions as follows:
This is what Vermont is like right now—a lot of fascinating dreams, some of them fever dreams, about how this place might be successfully inhabited. Wine grapes,… community forests, college gardens with solar pumps, high-tech wood energy, diners serving local ham and eggs, community slaughterhouses. Ferries running on local biodiesel! Every one of them is an attempt to interfere with history, which at the moment looks as though it should go this way: dairy farms fail or consolidate; farmland turns into second homes…. But sometimes that history churns up its own countercurrents. If the future seems unlikely to answer enough yearnings, then people will look for exits.
McKibben asks whether wilderness can be reconciled with human occupancy and whether such a thing as wilderness really exists in a world so dominated by human beings. He concludes: “For me, though, the idea that there is no such thing as pure wilderness has made the relative wild all the more precious.” He continues:
The battle for the future is precisely between those who are willing to engineer every organism for our convenience, who will countenance the radical change of our climate rather than risk any damage to our cosseted and swaddled Economy, and those who are willing to say there is something other than us that counts. Wilderness and Gandhian nonviolence were the two most potentially revolutionary ideas of the twentieth century, precisely because they were the two most humble: they imagine a wholly different possibility for people.
McKibben goes on to describe how he climbed up and down Adirondack mountains, encountering some surprising local inhabitants like the proprietors of the Adirondack Bison Company, who sell bison jerky and other provender to hikers. They were “people who had lived here all their lives and thought there might be some money in bison. Or maybe they just liked bison—abstract questions didn’t get very far.” He also rode a raft down white-water rapids on the upper reaches of the Hudson River, without settling the question of whether rafting by tourists was damaging fish and other wildlife in the stream.
McKibben ends his walk on a celebratory note. “There is a surpassing glory in our right habitation of a place,” he declares.
It’s the glory of the land and the human making sense of each other…. But here on the western shore [of Lake Champlain], there is another—equal—kind of glory, the glory of the human voice growing quieter and quieter till it’s only a whisper.
In his own voice one finds no whisper, rather a rhapsody on Vermont and the Adirondacks, as his closing words attest:
I have the great good fortune to have found the place I was supposed to inhabit, a place in whose largeness I can sense the whole world but yet is small enough for me to comprehend. If, when it comes my turn to die, I really do see again that view from Mount Abe, I know it will contain all these things: farm, field, forest, mountain, loon, moose, cow, monarch, pine, hemlock, white oak, shepherd, bee, beekeeper, college, teacher, beaver flow, bakery, brewery, hawk, vineyard, high rock, high summer, deep winter, deep economy. Yes, and cell phone tower and highway and car lot and Burger King. This is part of the real world. But what’s rare in that real world, and common here, is the chance for completion. For being big sometimes and small at others, in the shadow of the mountains and the shade of hemlocks.
McKibben’s observations remain strictly local and he mostly encountered fellow refugees from urban and suburban living. By contrast, Tripp, as a writer and minor state official, takes an interest in a remarkable variety of historical and contemporary characters. He describes robber barons like the executives who managed the takeover of dams on the upper Connecticut River by the Pacific Gas and Electric Company in order to make money in the market for electricity. He talked to ordinary residents whose traditional ways of life were threatened when the Pacific Gas executives in control of the river’s hydroelectric power decided whether to sell electricity or accumulate water reserves until prices rose. Sometimes they allowed a heavy flow of water; sometimes the water level went down. If you had a boat on the river or fished in it, or had a farm near it, or property on the shore, you, along with fish and wildlife, faced unpredictable and often damaging changes. Tripp extends his concerns to people in other parts of the world, particularly to the Cree Indians of Quebec, whose hunting grounds were recently inundated by dams built to supply electricity to New England.
He explains his connection with the river as follows:
I had been fascinated by the flow of water as a child…. When I came home from Vietnam in 1969, I let the river wash me. It speaks with the voice of a mother, a father, a brother, a lover. It is always changing, it is always the same. I found a place near the river thirty years ago, a little upland valley that would be easy to defend, for I still had the sound of gunfire echoing in my mind.
Defending that refuge soon engaged him full time. At first things went his way:
The 1972 Clean Water Act itself was both elegant and simple, calling for waters to be safe enough for swimming, the fish safe to eat. By the time that decade ended, the change in the Connecticut was dramatic as both industry and municipalities began treating their effluent instead of piping it straight into the river. There was even hope of restoring the Atlantic salmon, and I had visions of salmon in my backyard someday as the effort got under way.
If I was naive then, I still am now, still wrestling with my own agrarian dream, still waiting for the salmon, yet all the while I have also borne witness to changes in rural life that are as heart wrenching as war itself. One after another riverside barns have fallen silent; where once the cattle would be basking in the spring sun, heavy with calf, where once the sweet scent of manure would promise another crop, now are found desolation, weeds, sagging roofs, and hip-shot walls….
For each empty barn, there was a family, a community, a way of life, and now, after a flurry of timber liquidation in the 1980s, the mills are closing, too. This is the same process that is taking place, in varying degrees, all around the world….
The river has gotten healthier, but all the while rural America has been dying, and both the culture and the legislation that came out of the 1960s have been subjected to unrelenting ridicule and erosion.
Tripp’s analysis of how anger among the poor and dispossessed in the upper Connecticut River valley came to nourish “a quasi-militia cult against government and environmentalists” is chilling and convincing, though its most violent manifestation was clearly exceptional. In a town on the river, a deranged “property rights fanatic” named Carl Drega, who hated all government regulation, murdered four “pillars of the community,” including a woman lawyer who had been on a local committee that approved property appraisals. A German shepherd dog detected Drega’s hiding place in a forest and he was killed by the police. “The worst part,” Tripp writes, was that “militia and property rights groups across the country started publicly proclaiming Drega as a hero.”
For about a decade Tripp’s efforts to protect the river as a member of the Connecticut River Joint Commission, to which Governor Howard Dean appointed him, embroiled him as much with suspicious and angry rural poor people as with big business. Here Tripp’s sympathies are clear:
Of all the things that the family farm represented, hard work and impoverishment included, the most important one was independence. It is the loss of traditional independence, more than anything else, that gives rise to the anger. And if you think it isn’t important, just remember that most of the high school shootings, along with the Timothy McVeighs and Ruby Ridges, have been distinctly and disproportionately rural…. This isn’t the inner-city minorities the press likes to rail about. This is the heartland of white America, all stirred up by greedy hands.
In 1991 a magazine editor commissioned Tripp to investigate what was troubling the Northern Cree in Quebec. They had come to local attention by sending spokesmen to Vermont to protest plans to purchase electric power from dams that brought them new amenities—TV, housing, and schooling—but at the cost of disrupting their traditional ways. After Tripp overcame initial suspicion, a young Cree politician who had organized publicity tours to Vermont told him:
We never had to fight for our territory. We are also a Christian people, and we believe in living in harmony with nature and people. But also, 60 percent of our people are under thirty, more educated, better informed about the treatment of Native people in the past, more proud of our culture, more militant, more outraged.
They still had the two most precious things life offers anywhere: a deep connection to the mystery of life itself, and a deep connection to each other. And these two things are precisely what our “modern” American culture is destroying…. Technology is a good thing. Knowledge is even better. Wisdom is best of all, but it can’t exist when the spiritual and personal connections are lost, and we drift like dust in the wind of advertisers, politicians, and religious zealots.
The worldwide destruction of traditional cultures is just as much an uncontrolled experiment as global warming is, with equally dire consequences….
The main obstacle Tripp encountered in his private and official work came from profit-minded business executives who did not care what they did to the upper Connecticut River as they opened and closed the spillways of the dams they owned in response to fluctuating prices for electricity. In the hot dry summer of 1999, they stopped the flow,
waiting for the price to get even higher…. Only then, when the price had reached ten or even twenty times the usual rate, would the golden gallons be allowed to pour forth. [A friend told him that] on one of those afternoons during that time of heat and drought, the company made as much money in six hours as it had during the rest of the entire year.
That seems improbable. As Tripp himself tells us, Pacific Gas and Electric “would be one of the biggest losers of all” in a deregulated energy market. As his book went to press, its New England subsidiary was bankrupt, and the company was trying to sell its dams on the Connecticut River.
The ecological devastation wrought by the irregular rise and fall of water levels is little known, and Tripp’s explanation of its effects is clear, detailed, and an eye-opener for me. Persistent failure of the salmon to return is another theme that runs through his pages. Efforts to track and count migrating salmon vastly expanded information about their life cycle, but it remains a mystery why the number of returning salmon remains minuscule while stocking rates keep on going up. “Whatever it is that afflicts the fish, it is afflicting them everywhere, on both sides of the Atlantic, with the total number of sea fish being halved and then halved again in recent years.”
So Tripp sees himself surrounded by injured, angry, and suspicious rural people, as well as by ruthless, short-sighted businessmen, demoralized government officials, quarreling scientists, and confused environmentalists—very different from the people we meet in McKibben’s resolutely cheerful account. Tripp writes:
In this rootless place, where families move every few years to another place that looks just the same, the marketers, the peddlers, the hucksters, in their ascendance, not only have destroyed our culture, but are in the process of destroying our democracy as well, creating instead a dictatorship designed for spoiled children, fueled by sound bites and driven by the promise of instant gratification.
He goes further, suggesting that the earth may be getting tired of us. “It is possible,” he says,
that as the planet warms and oceanic currents change, there may be a sort of great global vomiting, in which it all comes up again, almost all at once—not just the pathogens and pollutants [from the oceans’ depths], but even the deadly methane that has lain there for so many millions of years, as though our planet has suddenly decided that it has had enough of us.
I do not think the earth acts like a person. Tripp’s despair seems as exaggerated as McKibben’s optimism. Nevertheless, they both point to a central issue for American society: the decay of the small-scale local enterprise and the human solidarity that once characterized family farms where most Americans lived and labored as recently as 1920. Parents and children on those farms shared daily tasks and met neighbors at churches, public schools, and weekend dances. This tied farm families into local communities in which nearly everyone found a place. But as cities grew and urban-based communications invaded rural landscapes—first radio in the 1920s then TV in the 1950s—and as cheaper transport delivered mass-produced goods to farmhouses everywhere, the local autonomy of rural society dissolved. Sturdy independent farmers were relegated to the fringes of urban America and transformed into the angry hangers-on that Tripp describes and McKibben hints at.
As Tripp says, this trend is worldwide and for the same reasons. Cities have, in effect, swallowed rural societies, dissolving them in a global market economy, with all the advantages of access to better goods and corresponding loss of local control. As long as communication becomes easier and transport remains cheap, this process seems sure to continue. But recent oil shortages and rising prices for gasoline and other forms of energy may signify a turn in a different direction. If global production of oil has in fact peaked, or is coming close to doing so, as some experts believe, energy prices will continue to rise. In that case, rising transport costs may soon require Vermont to do without as many fresh vegetables from distant irrigated fields of California, and the United States as a whole may have to get along without relying as heavily on Chinese manufactured goods as we do now.
If this happens, McKibben’s higher-cost local producers may be able to supply part of their regional needs and higher-cost American factories may recover part of their lost markets as well. But rising energy costs and decline in the volume of trade with far-off places will also lower standards of living for Americans in general, even among today’s marginalized rural residents. That may be hard to bear and may create burdens that the rich throughout the world will be unwilling to share with the poor. Only time and local initiative are likely to restore the kinds of community solidarities that made even the lives of hardscrabble farmers worth living.
The central social and political problems of the twenty-first century may involve addressing and mollifying quarrels over access to diminishing wealth among aging and perhaps declining national and global populations, while attempting to strengthen local community ties. Neither McKibben nor Tripp considers such a future, but their books were written before oil prices began to move higher without any clear prospect of their coming down. My forebodings may turn out to be as exaggerated as I think theirs are. Meanwhile readers can learn much about the past and future of the environment and of American society by spending a few hours with these elegant, provocative, short, and lopsided books.